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American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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It seems logical that if humor can function as a device for inclusion that it can serve similarly as a device for exclusion. They differ, of course, only in one’s perspective of the situation. For example, a Deaf joke may unify the community with a punch line that emphasizes the us-against-them mentality of gallows humor, in which members of the Deaf community triumph over the majority non-Deaf society. It is inclusive for Deaf people and exclusive from the non-Deaf perspective. Similarly a Deaf joke may target a Deaf individual who has, in the opinion of the group, strayed from accepted group norms. The humor again reinforces the communal identity and implicitly threatens the target with exclusion from the group for the violation. In this way, it controls the target’s behavior. Sociologists label inclusion and exclusion as social conflict function and social control function, respectively (Fine 1983).


Carried to an extreme, both social conflict and social control humor begin to function as subversion. The speaker can “foster demoralization and social disintegration of the group [control], or induce a hostile attitude toward an out-group [conflict]” (ibid, p. 174). At this level of aggression, the feigned guise of humor serves as an attempt to deflect retaliation from the target. Fine mentions numerous studies into black/white humor, Czech/Nazi humor, and Arab/Israeli humor as examples. Left unchecked, the attitudes that the humor inspires can proliferate. The former Soviet Union recognized the power of subversive humor and often jailed those who challenged the authority of the state with jokes. The defense for the accused, then, was essentially, “What? You can’t take a joke?!”


Whereas the first three roles of innuendo relate to its humorous aspects, the final role, circumlocution, relates to the indirect nature of innuendo. Obeng (1997) analyzed how politicians speak and determined that indirectness is essential for communicating difficult messages—those that threaten face. For those in a political arena, saving face is tantamount to saving one’s career. Given the heterogeneity of addressees in an audience for any given utterance, politicians often use innuendo to avoid potentially damaging communication.

Finally, the last motivation for using innuendo to be addressed here is that often times innuendo is the most accurate expression. “The indirectness itself will contribute to the contents of the concept and make it altogether different from a directly expressed concept” (Geukens, 1978, p. 266). For a detailed account comparing addressees’ reaction to indirectness, see Colston and O’Brien (2000) and Leggitt and Gibbs (2000) for their work on verbal irony.

Linguistics of Humor

As mentioned above, appreciation of linguistic humor has been researched for many years. This section will feature those aspects of the research applicable to interaction. After an overview of the mechanics of humor, this section will address how the use of conversational joking impacts communication from a sociolinguistic perspective.

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